Tuesday 7 June 2011

Rookie Errors No. 231 - Bagginess

I learnt a lot about writing sitcom for television on the fondly-remembered, critically-disliked sitcom, My Hero. I wrote six episodes in all, over three series. And this was done under the tutelage of some wonderful, kind and patient men who had made an awful lot of comedy between them ranging from May to December, through Game On to Vicar of Dibley and Alexei Sayle's Stuff.

Each draft of each script was read by the producer, exec producer, director, script editor and show creator. All these notes and thoughts were collated, interpreted and fed back by the producer, Jamie Rix, as truly delightful a human being as you could hope to meet.

The Baggy Draft
I remember one time I was having trouble with a draft of a script - so I sent in a draft that was very baggy indeed. Scripts for half an hour of telly are normally about 6000 words for me. Ideally a shade under. If you're playing around and have the luxury of time, a slightly longer script of 6500 is okay. (For radio, I tend to write slightly long, knowing that there isn't time to rewrite on the day, but there is time to make cuts, even before the recording itself). Let's cut to the chase. This draft of My Hero was c. 9000 words, and I sent it in.

My reasoning was simple. There were lots of options on the script. Lots of ways to go. A number of possible funny routines. And ultimately, I didn't know what I was doing. And they did. So I was turning it over to them to decide where the funny was. In way, I was being humble and unpretentious.

They were perfectly nice - but profoundly unimpressed. And immediately I realised what an idiot I had been. It was never said out loud, but could and should have been pointed out, that I was being paid good money to write a script and decide where the funny was, what the story was and 'which way to go'. They suggested that I wasn't clear on what the story was and exactly what this episode was about. And they were right. I had no idea. And I'd abdicated my responsibility to write the darned show. I wasn't being humble and unpretentious. I was being lazy and spineless. And therefore unprofessional.

The iciness in the room thawed. They were gentle with me. More so than I deserved. But the moment stayed with me.

With My Other Hat
And now I experience this bagginess from the other side. Not often. But sometimes. I get sent things that are way overlength for the show I'm script-editing - either a sketch or script or whatever - with an accompanying email saying 'I wasn't really sure what worked best, so I put it all in so you can decide'. Whenever I read that email, my heart sinks.

The first reason it sinks is I recall my own shame of doing this. And how it demonstrated my inexperience and laziness. I'm not saying that's why all people do this, it's sometimes just sheer lack of confidence and a desire to 'show your working' - and is essentially a quest for approval.

It also makes my heart sink because I realise that this is going to be noticeably more work for me. I'm going to have to read a longer draft - twice - think about it for longer, feedback on more script, and ultimately think about 'which way to go' which takes up time and brainspace. Then the rotten part of my heart kicks in and I think 'Hey, I'm not being paid to this. The writer should decide which way to go' and then the good part of heart feels bad, but ultimately agrees. And I'm tired, cross and feeling guilty. Maybe other script editors are more patient, magnanimous and understanding. But that's usually my reaction.

I'd rather read a tight script where the wrong choice has been made, and it's been seen through and slaved over, than a baggy script where every choice and no choice has been made - and I'm effectively reading a 'Choose Your Own Adventure' book.

So, my advice is don't turn in hopelessly long drafts. Decide. Work out what the episode/sketch is about and stick to it. If it isn't working, fix it. If it still isn't working, talk to your script editor/producer in advance and ask for help before the deadline. This means - hey - not leaving it all to the last minute.

But don't, please, send in overlong drafts. (Unless you're a successful novelist, obviously because they you have carte blanche to write an 800 page children's book.)

PS. Sorry this post is longer than usual. I couldn't decide whether to include the My Hero anecdote at the top or not, so I left it in. But you can skip over it if it's boring. Or just read bits. (Annoying, isn't it?)


  1. P.S. There was a piece in the Guardian today which discussed whether there was room for shorter, sketch-based material in the occasional gaps between "regular" programming, as well as on the web.

    As a writer, would you see this as constraining or liberating?

  2. I sent you a comment to this on Twitter but wanted to put a comment here also (though I'll try not to make it too baggy). I am very much a sitcom writing rookie who has sent of her first attempt this weekend. Your posts have been really helpful and have stopped me from making mistakes that seem obvious now but weren't at the time. Thank you.